Years after Marvel and Netflix announced new series about Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, we’ve finally met all four “street-level” superheroes who will team-up in The Defenders series later this year. The first season of Iron First arrived March 17th on the heels of three of the most-acclaimed superhero series ever. Bad buzz surrounded Iron Fist since early development, and a grisly Rotten Tomatoes score certainly didn’t help. Even hardcore Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) fans are skipping the series. Unfortunately, I’m a completist nerd. So I’m forced to watch Iron Fist because of my own irrational sense of obligation.
Is Iron First any good? No. If you want a superhero show about an actor who can’t do martial arts fighting evil mystical ninjas, just rewatch the second season of Daredevil. Iron Fist is bad. Worse, it’s bad in a way that’s not really significant enough for interesting discourse. It’s just…lame. So much so that I don’t care about any of the happenings in this series so much as I care about what such a jarring drop from quality means for the rest of Netflix’s corner of the MCU.
Danny Rand (a.k.a., Iron Fist, played by Finn Jones) is predestined to appear alongside so much more well-rounded and better-acted characters in The Defenders that it’s damn near unimaginable. Marvel apparently fears how Rand’s mystical abilities will fit in a shared universe of grim and gritty character-based drama because they just spent 13 episodes avoiding them. Oddly enough, a superhero who got his powers after he defeated a dragon in hand-to-hand combat somehow feels right at home in the vicinity of hard-boiled private detectives and vigilante lawyers.
What disconnects Iron Fist from Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage isn’t a considerably goofier hero. It’s just that those shows are “good” while Iron Fist is “bad.” The only hope left for Rand to feel like he somewhat belongs in The Defenders is quite simple, and it’s the real reason why I’m talking about this at all…
Iron Fist looks like the other Marvel/Netflix shows. Folks like to pretend MCU continuity is an intricate network of crossover storytelling. But apart from a few reoccurring supporting characters, all that really connects Marvel/Netflix series are their shared visual aesthetics. All four shows basically “look” the same. A uniform “look” is a clever, subtle and constant reminder to viewers that these characters actually occupy the same space. Watch any Marvel/Netflix series and you’ll typically see interiors bathed in either blue or green and nighttime exteriors with exaggerated yellows or oranges; precisely three of those colors are prominently used in almost every scene. The signature “look” has a true comic book vibe that’s perfect for telling “street-level” superhero stories. Something about it just fits. It’s one of the most important elements unifying every Marvel/Netflix series.
That’s why it’s pretty scuzzy they straight up stole the “look” from the 2008 movie Punisher: War Zone.
When I say, “stole,” I mean precisely that. Marvel/Netflix aren’t “inspired” by Punisher: War Zone. They aren’t “paying homage” to Punisher: War Zone. It’s not just that all the Defenders’ series look similar to Punisher: War Zone. They look almost identical. And Marvel/Netflix never publicly gave the movie due credit. They plagiarized its “look.” They stole it.
Directed by Lexi Alexander with cinematography by Steve Gainer, if you’re a fan of superhero movies who hasn’t seen Punisher: War Zone then you seriously need to get your shit together. It’s a fairly straightforward action flick about Frank Castle’s one-man war on crime. But it’s the only on-screen adaptation of his to actually feel “comic booky” and be ultraviolent as hell. If you were impressed by Wolverine stabbing a few folks in Logan, just wait until you see Castle shoot a dude’s kneecaps, impale him on a fence post, then jump on his face and snap his neck back so far that his throat rips open. Yeah, that happens.
One of the big reasons Punisher: War Zone feels so “comic booky” is because it’s virtually the spitting image of its comic book counterpart. The movie prompted me to read the Punisher MAX comics, and I was stunned by how carefully Alexander and Gainer recreated the comic book imagery. Think about movies like Sin City, which were filmed entirely in front of green screens to recreate every panel in their source material, and you get the idea. Only Alexander and Gainer used the technique so much better than Sin City. They filmed on actual sets and locations, recreating Punisher MAX images organically through lighting and aesthetic. Alexander was the first director of a Punisher movie not to shy away from his iconic skull costume, along with finally letting Castle fight a major supervillain from the comics.
Alexander also noticed that Punisher MAX images typically used only three colors in most panels. To recreate the effect in-camera, she worked with Gainer to storyboard a color scheme to make the “look” of Punisher: War Zone truly feel like a comic book come to life. The movie’s overall look was—wait for it—interiors bathed in either blue or green and nighttime exteriors with exaggerated yellows or oranges, with precisely three colors used in almost every scene.
I didn’t connect the dots until binging the second season of Daredevil. It introduced a new version of Castle into the MCU, and suddenly it was impossible not to notice that the show looks exactly like Punisher: War Zone. I rewatched bits of the first season and saw the same thing. Every Marvel/Netflix series followed suit, and so will The Defenders. An entire corner of the MCU essentially held together by a look it stole from Punisher: War Zone. Listen, I really like some of these shows, but it undeniably sucks that their unifying creative element is riding on the coattails of a movie never appreciated enough for its meticulous and beautiful look.
The suck comes full-circle when you watch Iron Fist and you see Punisher: War Zone just about everywhere you look. Accuse me of confirmation bias all damn day. Watch Punisher: War Zone. Then watch Iron Fist and try to unsee it. Go on. Try…
All of this is even more irritating because one of the huge problems with Iron Fist is it’s a fighting series with few fights, and when they do finally go down they’re never worth the wait. Never! Alexander was a world champion fighter. It’s almost harder to imagine her screwing up fight scenes this badly than it is to imagine the MCU’s current version of Danny Rand alongside the other Defenders.